Introducing HKS’ BLACK Collective: A Conversation with Ashli Hall

Ashli Hall, a Senior Communications Project Manager and Vice President, is President of the BLACK Collective, a new Affinity and Inclusion Group at HKS. A small team of Black employees have been meeting regularly since the fall of 2023 in preparation for the group’s upcoming formal introduction to the firm. As part of that preparation, and HKS’ continuing recognition of Black History Month, Ashli agreed to answer a few questions about the group and what it hopes to accomplish.

Question: OK, Ashli, let’s start with the group’s name. Why the moniker BLACK Collective, and why is the word BLACK all uppercase?

First, I want to emphasize the significance and depth associated with a name.  It is a powerful tool for identification, communication, emotional connection, branding and cultural preservation. A name extends across various aspects of human experience and interaction. We gave considerable thought and effort to how best to characterize our group, and while we were initially content with the term “collective,” defined as a cooperative unit or organization, we eventually recognized the importance of not only defining ourselves as a group but also highlighting our individual identities externally.

The use of all caps for “BLACK” is intentional, representing Black Leadership, Advancement, Community, and Kinship. These values are integral to our identity, and we aim to amplify them within our affinity inclusion group and HKS as a whole.

Question: What’s the primary purpose of the BLACK Collective, and what do you say to those who might question the need for such a group?

Our mission is to cultivate a vibrant and welcoming architecture and design industry where Black HKS professionals grow and thrive, not just here, but throughout the industry. Through service, we will actively engage with our community, leveraging our design expertise and broad-based skills to uplift underserved people. We aim to empower Black design professionals to lead and excel by helping to create and foster an inclusive and supportive workplace where their talents and voices are heard, utilized, valued, and promoted. Mentorship is our cornerstone, and we seek to nurture the next generation of Black design professionals, providing our guidance and support. As advocates, we champion equity in architecture as we work to remove barriers while promoting diversity and fairness at HKS and throughout the industry.

Why start this group now?

We strongly believe that the establishment of this group holds immense value, and the timing for its inception is optimal, with some even suggesting that its formation is long overdue. Candidly speaking, there is a pressing need for this group to champion diversity within our firm and the broader AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) profession. Beyond that, it is crucial to foster connections and a sense of belonging for our Black employees, not only to retain talent but also to cultivate a community.

According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) report in 2022, out of 121,603 licensed architects in the U.S., only 2,492 were Black — a mere 2%. This stark underrepresentation underscores the urgency and importance of our group’s mission and goals to increase diversity within our industry.

And why is diversity so integral to the BLACK Collective’s mission? The answer lies in the understanding that innovation thrives in diverse environments. Diverse teams bring a broader range of skills and knowledge, which allows for a multifaceted approach to challenges. This diversity fosters creativity and encourages unconventional thinking. Unique cultural perspectives and life experiences often lead to innovative solutions that may not be evident in more homogenous settings. Simply put, diversity is good business strategy.

To fulfill the HKS vision of becoming the most influential firm in our industry, we recognize the need to be a place of limitless thinkers. This necessitates not only embracing diversity but actively championing it, as it is the key to unlocking innovation, fostering creativity, and achieving our ambitious goals.

BLACK Collective team. From top left to bottom right, Selwyn Crawford, Benjamin Robinson, Alex Q Jones, Chasa Toliver-Leger, Ashli Hall and Chandler Funderburg

What will success look like for the BLACK Collective?

Our vision of success involves several key components. Firstly, it entails fostering cultural awareness within our firm, creating an environment where diversity is not just acknowledged but celebrated. Secondly, we aim to enhance architectural practice and contribute to the industry’s enrichment by embracing diverse perspectives and innovative ideas.

In addition, building inclusivity and connection is a crucial aspect of our success. We aspire to create a workplace where everyone feels a sense of belonging, fostering strong connections among our team members. Moreover, we are committed to working toward the development and promotion of Black professionals to leadership roles, recognizing that diverse leadership is essential for driving meaningful change and ensuring representation at the highest levels.

We recognize that our goals are ambitious. But with the steadfast support of our Co-Executive sponsors, Dan Noble and Sam Mudro, and the valuable guidance from our Chief Advisor, Sidney Smith, we are confident that we can make significant strides to effect positive change within our organization and the broader AEC industry.

Why should any HKS employee want to be a part of or support the BLACK Collective?

Because the success of any one of us translates to success for all of us. All HKS employees should seek to support the BLACK Collective because our goals and mission are ultimately designed to improve HKS and the broader AEC industry. And isn’t that what we all want?